The game brings former Arsenal manager Unai Emery back to England, where he didn’t have the best time as Gunners boss, but Alan Feehely, editor of Football Espana, has spoken to CaughtOffside to provide some insight into what Liverpool can expect from these opponents.
Emery’s men may have upset Manchester United to win the Europa League last season, as well as surprising us all with a win to get past Bayern Munich in this year’s Champions League quarter-finals, but Alan tells us he still makes Liverpool the favourites for this tie…
COS: Liverpool are the big favourites to get past Villarreal in this year’s Champions League semi-finals, but do you expect there’ll be a fair few fans and pundits over here who are underestimating Unai Emery’s side?
Alan: I think that any sane person would agree that Liverpool are the heavy favourites for this tie. They’re playing at a level right now that I don’t think any other side in European football can compete with, peaking at the perfect moment. Having said that, the best team doesn’t always win the Champions League. It rarely does, in fact. Knockout football is a unique animal and there’s few better suited to it than Unai Emery. He knows how to get results in Europe and Villarreal have already proven this season that they can upset the odds.
Emery didn’t win over a lot of fans with his style of football at Arsenal, but what kind of tactical setup can we expect to see at Anfield on Wednesday night?
I think Emery is going to set Villarreal up in a narrow 4-4-1-1 shape and opt against starting natural wingers. Giovani lo Celso will play behind the striker, Arnaut Danjuma, but will come back to help Dani Parejo and Etienne Capoue in the centre of midfield. Essentially, Villarreal will hope to close space and not allow Liverpool the pockets in which they thrive. They’ll hope for big performances from the fine centre-back partnership of Raul Albiol and Pau Torres and rely on Danjuma to be clinical when chances arise.
What do you make of Emery’s somewhat mixed spell in his time at Arsenal and how he’s bounced back since then?
I think the ridicule Emery suffered during his time in the Premier League was unfair and he was never as bad a coach as he was made out to be. He’s enjoyed success at Villarreal, leading them to glory in the Europa League last season – their first ever major title – and also taking them to the final four of this season’s Champions League. Their league form, however, can’t be overlooked. They finished seventh last season and are on course to do the same this term. With the quality they have I think they should be competing with Real Sociedad and Real Betis to break into the top four but they haven’t. That’s on Emery.
A player we’ve heard a lot about at Villarreal is defender Pau Torres – is he as good as the hype suggests and do you think we could finally see him move to the Premier League this summer after links with Man Utd and Spurs last year?
I really like Pau and think he’s a fine player. I thought he enjoyed an excellent season last year and rightly earned the attention of several of the European elite last summer. There have been moments – especially when he’s not playing beside Albiol – that I think he can look weak, but he’s really matured in the back end of this season and is playing superbly. The reason he stayed at La Ceramica last summer was because he wanted to play for them in the Champions League. Now that dream is secured I could see him moving on.
Another exciting talent is Arnaut Danjuma – what kind of a threat does he pose to Liverpool in this tie, and do you have any insight over a potential transfer to a Premier League club this summer?
Danjuma is one of several players Villarreal have signed from England that have been superb at La Ceramica. He’s provided six goals and one assists in ten Champions League appearances this season and ten and three in 23 in La Liga. He’s not in the same class as Gerard Moreno, who’s missing tonight through injury, but he’s a very useful frontman. I wouldn’t be surprised if interest arose from the Premier League this summer but as things stand I’ve not heard anything concrete about a possible departure.
Villarreal won the first trophy of their history last season with that Europa League final triumph against Man Utd – even if the Champions League proves to be beyond them, do you expect that they are generally continuing in a positive direction, perhaps even to challenge Spain’s big three in the next few years?
I don’t think so. Villarreal’s league form hasn’t matched their European success last season or this season and Emery has a record of that. I think fundamentally he’s best suited to cup competitions and that, coupled with the size of the club, will hamstring Villarreal in taking that next step and breaking into the top four. Other clubs like Sevilla, Real Betis and Real Sociedad remain better placed to do so in my humble opinion.
After an all-English final last season, how big would it be for Spanish football to have Real Madrid and Villarreal meeting in this year’s final, and how confident are you that it could happen?
It would be huge. La Liga has been written off since Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi departed for pastures new but the reality of the matter is that the quality of football here is still very high. There aren’t teams of the same quality as Manchester City and Liverpool but there are very good coaches here and very good players. If Madrid and Villarreal could upset the odds and make it to the final of the Champions League it would be amazing, but I still think that both sides are underdogs. Logic suggests City and Liverpool will progress.